Magazine article The New Yorker

Head Count

Magazine article The New Yorker

Head Count

Article excerpt

Shortly before eleven the other night, a group of about a hundred volunteers shuffled into the overheated cafeteria of P.S. 191, on West Sixty-first Street, to gird themselves for a distinctive night on the town. They were about to set off to conduct the city's seventh annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate--to count the number of homeless people on the street--and the mood reflected a kind of nervous giddiness. "The reason we count the homeless is not because it's fun and exciting," Kristin Misner, who led the pre-survey briefing, said. "But still--it is!"

More than two thousand volunteers in all five boroughs participated, and they were instructed to follow a strict set of rules. In groups of four to six, the surveyors were to follow routes laid out on maps and ask every person they saw between midnight and 4 A.M. to answer the same handful of questions. "Even if they refuse to answer, you still have to fill out the answer to question six--it's the most important question," Misner told the group. "Do you believe that this person is homeless?"

After Misner's high-spirited pep talk, Dr. Dova Marder, the medical director of the Department of Homeless Services, took the floor, and a more sombre tone. "We've called a Code Blue, level two, for tonight, because we expect a wind-chill of below twenty degrees," she said. That meant that the volunteers were to offer a van ride to a shelter to anyone who wanted it. In the past year, five homeless people in the city have died because of cold weather--so, Marder warned, "please, err on the side of caution." (The survey is conducted in winter because, it is assumed, only the truly homeless stay outside in cold weather.)

Just after midnight, Group Four trooped north to its assigned turf in the West Seventies. These were not exactly mean streets--the main peril in daytime is stroller gridlock in front of Fairway--and at first the cheerful vibe lingered. The group took literally the order to approach every single person on the street with the question "Tonight, do you have some place that you consider to be your home or a place where you live?" Yes, a series of bemused dog-walkers said, and so did the fellow getting into his BMW with New Jersey plates. …

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